If welfare reform continues on its current track, the UK is headed towards a homelessness crisis in the next decade. This stark warning from the Fabian Society, which mirrors Shelter’s own experience helping families on the brink of homelessness, comes at a time when public concern about housing has reached its highest level for 40 years.
For Us All by the Fabian Society provides a comprehensive and long overdue analysis of the current trajectory of the UK’s welfare state. The research, supported by Shelter and Legal & General, is a vitally important kick-start to the discussions we need to have about the challenges of 2020 and beyond, and what some of the solutions might be.
As the leading housing and homelessness charity in the country, Shelter’s focus is inevitably on how well the welfare state helps people to avoid homelessness and navigate the country’s failing housing market. We know that after six years of shrinking support the prospects are bleak for low income private renters.
Rents are rising and increasingly families are finding that having a job doesn’t mean they can keep are roof over their head – the number of working households claiming help from housing benefit has increased by a third over the past five years. Yet 63 per cent of landlords say they prefer not to or don’t let to tenants on housing benefit. The loss of a private tenancy is currently the single leading cause of homelessness.
From this challenging start, the report paints a picture set to worsen dramatically by 2020. It warns that the current provision of support will be severely lacking, after years of cuts and freezes leave housing unaffordable for low income private renters in most areas.
A safety net so out of step with even modest housing costs will be shameful and let down millions of us. The new government – and opposition - have an opportunity to heed this warning and engage in a long overdue conversation about what a sustainable welfare safety net could look like after austerity. Because if we don’t take action now, current policies could tip many more renters into homelessness.
We fully welcome the report’s recommendation that support for housing costs should reflect actual rising rents. First and foremost, the safety net should ensure that people are protected from homelessness, and the first test of any new welfare system will be can it meet essential needs. Currently, we are in danger of failing this most basic test.
With a new Prime Minister and fresh challenges ahead, now is the time to ask what the social security system should aim to achieve and how. The report makes clear that the challenges facing the welfare state are not the same as those which Beveridge confronted 70 years ago – and neither are the tools to fix them. Employment, society, technology and more have all changed beyond recognition.
The report prompts all of us to consider our rights and responsibilities and considers drawing on a far broader range of safety net measures, including means-tested and contributory benefits alongside personal accounts. At Shelter we will explore in more detail what this means for housing.
Genuine welfare reform will never appeal to governments seeking a quick or easy win, but if successful it promises a vital prize: a sustainable and affordable safety net that enables people to flourish through good times and ill, supporting them when they need it, and being supported by them when they don’t.
Campbell Robb is chief executive of Shelter. This article previously appearedo n our sister site, the New Statesman.